Review: Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon

Vern – seven months pregnant and desperate to escape the strict religious compound where she was raised – flees for the shelter of the woods. There, she gives birth to twins, and plans to raise them far from the influence of the outside world.

But even in the forest, Vern is a hunted woman. Forced to fight back against the community that refuses to let her go, she unleashes incredible brutality far beyond what a person should be capable of, her body wracked by inexplicable and uncanny changes.

To understand her metamorphosis and to protect her small family, Vern has to face the past, and more troublingly, the future – outside the woods. Finding the truth will mean uncovering the secrets of the compound she fled but also the violent history in America that produced it.

Rating: 3/5

Solomon won me over with their novella, The Deep, and I was immediately intrigued by the premise of this book: a young, pregnant girl who flees into the woods to escape a cult, but can’t hide forever. I don’t want to say too much in order to avoid spoilers, but in addition to the horror elements, there is more of a spec-fic element than I originally anticipated, as Vern grapples with a number of supernatural changes to her body, born of the cult’s true purpose and activities.

There are numerous content warnings applicable for Sorrowland (including but not limited to: self-harm, child abuse and pedophilic relationships, rape, suicide, animal abuse/death, non-consensual medical procedures, racism and homophobia/transphobia, including against intersex individuals). All of these are handled respectfully and never used solely for shock value, but to highlight the themes of the book and remind readers of the real trauma experienced by many Black and LBGT+ people. Not that I would expect anything else from Solomon as an author. Indeed, Solomon pulls no punches in highlighting the various abuses that these communities have faced throughout history, and their far reaching consequences. It’s harrowing stuff. Readers of Solomon’s other books will also recognise similar themes of collective trauma and memory.

Unfortunately, while I greatly respect the themes of Sorrowland, the actual execution was lacking for me. The book read like a first draft that needed another round or two of editing and refinement before it was released. Apart from some minor plot holes and inconsistencies that I hope were fixed in later editions, several scenes read like play-by-plays of the action without much emotion, and there is quite a lot of info-dumping (including a large section of backstory about another character which appeared right at the climax, throwing off the pacing of the entire denoument of the story in a disconcerting way). I also couldn’t connect with Vern or her children, who never felt like real characters to me. I found it hard to believe that a young girl raised in a cult and two kids raised in the woods with no other human interaction could be as calm, collected and worldly as they were (Vern, in particular, understands a lot of cultural references that don’t make much sense given her upbringing). I did like some of the side characters, particularly Vern’s lover, but I wish we’d seen more of them.

I really respect Solomon’s aims with this book, but I can’t help but feel that their message occasionally got a bit muddled and would have hit home even more forcefully if told via characters the reader could connect with and a more gripping plot. Still, I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Note: I received an ARC from Macmillan. Sorrowland was released on 4 May 2021.

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